Monday, 4 April 2016

March reads

1. As far as thrillers go, Black-Eyed Susans is one of my favourites of recent months. Tessa was abducted and left for dead at the age of 17, and her testimony helped to put a man behind bars. But now, almost 20 years later, she's beginning to suspect that he wasn't responsible after all. Well written, pacy and with plenty of tension, my only criticism is that I felt somewhat let down by the anti-climactic ending.

2. So far, the Austen Project books have been a mixed bag: I loved Joanne Trollope's Sense & Sensibility but couldn't even finish Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey. So, prior to the much-anticipated release of Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld's version of Pride & PrejudiceEmma was going to act as the tie-break. And, sadly, it was more Northanger than Sense. In fact, once again I couldn't actually finish it. McCall Smith's book had all the depth of a puddle and the wit of a cracker joke, exchanging the intelligent romantic comedy of the original for something light and fluffy, with all the substance of a marshmallow.

3. I'd seen The Year Of Living Danishly on a number of different blogs recently and was intrigued. The story of journo Helen Russell's relocation to rural Jutland - after her husband is offered a job with Lego - it's a fairly lightweight but also thought-provoking analysis of what exactly contributes to happiness, backed up with stacks of statistics and amusing anecdotes.

4. Top of my list on any visit to South Africa is always checking whether Jonny Steinberg has published a new book (they are published in the UK but it's become a bit of a ritual for me to get them there). So I was super excited to pick up a copy of A Man Of Good Hope from the lovely Clarke Books in Cape Town. This book follows Asad from Mogadishu - where, aged eight, he saw his mother shot dead - to Cape Town, via Kenya, Ethiopia, and a dangerous journey across Eastern Africa to reach South Africa. It's an astonishing story; at times reading like a thriller, full of twists and turns, tragic events and sudden deaths. But it's not a thriller nor even a novel, but the true story of one refugee among millions, and I cannot recommend it enough at this time of tabloid hand-wringing over the refugee crisis.

5. The Lie Tree was published to huge acclaim, winning not just the Costa Children's prize 2015 but the overall book award too. liked it, atmospheric, enjoyed the feminist overtones of the story. Book of the year? not so sure.

6. Lips Touch is a collection of three short stories by Laini Taylor, who also wrote the extremely wonderful Daughter Of Smoke & Bone trilogy (which you must all read immediately: it's amazing). I'm not usually an enormous fan of the short story format when it comes to fantasy - I prefer sprawling volumes of world-building - but I liked two of the three a great deal. The first story, Goblin Fruit, had a great Southern Gothic, Poppy Z Brite vibe about it, and the final one, Hatchling, was fantastic, of novella length and so given enough space to develop.

7. Night Of Cake & Puppets is a short story set in the Daughter Of Smoke & Bone universe, taking place during a break in the narrative towards the end of the first book in the series and following Karou's best friend - 'rabid fairy' and puppet-maker Zuzana - as she attempts to ask violinist Mik out on a date. It's no spoiler to say that they do get together (he becomes a prominent character in the later books), but to find out exactly how they get together takes the reader on a magical ride through a snowy Prague night. I loved having one more tiny glimpse into this world.

8. Stargirl* is a classic YA novel, first published in 2000 and now being re-released for a new generation. It's narrated by Leo, an average guy attending an average high school, which is shaken by the arrival of the previously home-schooled Stargirl, who wears flowers in her hair, sings happy birthday to people in the cafeteria, and carries a rat on one shoulder and a ukulele on the other. Seen entirely through Leo's eyes, Stargirl comes across as little more than the manic pixie dream girl archetype writ large: we only see her as a vessel for other people's reactions and feelings. It's a book I wish I'd read when I was 15 or so, when I would have really appreciated its messages of non-conformity and being yourself. Coming to it as an adult, however, just made me want to break Stargirl's stupid ukulele over her stupid head.

9. The Plain Janes is a great graphic novel about a girl relocating to the suburbs after being caught up in a terrorist attack. Bored and resenting her parents for moving, she teams up with a group of misfits (all called Jane or variations thereof) to carry out attacks of her own: art attacks. The art pranks cause her new community to react in a variety of ways, adults hysterically comparing public sculpture to terrorism, her fellow students enjoying the anarchic spirit in which the attacks are intended.

10. The Infinite Moment Of Us should have been amazing but wasn't. Teenager Wren is preparing to leave for college, but can she break free of her loving but overbearing parents? Meanwhile Charlie, a boy with a troubled past but a heart of gold, has been watching her from afar (not in a creepy way - this isn't Twilight). So far so cliche, right? I enjoyed the start of this novel but around about the time Wren's difficulties with her wealthy parents started being given more credence than Charlie's hideous history of abuse and time in the foster care system, I lost patience. It's difficult to sympathise with such a special little snowflake, even when the author is encouraging you to.

11. I spend quite a bit of time immersed in the #Bookstagram world thanks to work (and there's a whole other post in how weird that scene is). Mayer's Lunar Chronicles, of which Cinder is the first in the series, are afforded god-like status amongst Bookstagrammers so I thought I'd give it a try. Whelp, big mistake. Some YA novels work fantastically well for adult readers (see above) but some don't. and this is one. The titular Cinder is a great invention, a teenage cyborg - part-human, part-machine - and orphan, working as a mechanic in a futuristic China and with a fun android buddy for comic relief. Unfortunately the world building wasn't there for me, the 'twists' were pretty predictable, and most of the supporting characters felt cliched, particularly the love interest.

12. Another title I've seen all over the blogosphere lately is The Trouble With Goats & Sheep*. It's set in the summer of 1976 and follows Grace and Tilly, ten years old and trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Mrs Creasy from across the road. Grace and Tilly are absolute gems of characters, with a believable naivety and ironic humour, and the sun-soaked summer days of the heatwave are captured perfectly.

13. Her sister stolen, her grandfather murdered, and her home burned to the ground. Megan is sixteen years old, pregnant, and alone in the world. True Fire starts with a bang but quickly falls apart. Meehan wants very much for Megan to be a kick-ass heroine in the style of Katniss Everdeen (although True Fire is set in a proto-medieval world rather than a dystopian future), and kick ass she does. However, he's overlooked the important fact that Katniss had excellent reason to be handy with a bow and arrow and fit enough to fight: she'd been hunting to support her family for years. Megan, meanwhile, after an education with monks followed by working in her family's mill, is somehow able to pick up a sword and fight with it; able to climb a treacherous waterfall, ride on horseback, walk for mile... and all while pregnant? It just didn't work for me, and nor did the Python-esque humour courtesy of sidekick Damon. It's safe to say I won't be finishing the series.

14. It's important to note that I am emphatically not the target audience for the Geek Girl series: that would be my younger students at school, who I am sure love Harriet Manners and her comic exploits. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Head Over Heels*, especially as it's the 5th in the series and I haven't read any of the others. Harriet is a winning narrator, completely obsessed with facts and figures and keen to organise everyone around her, but with a Georgia Nicholson-esque talent for getting into scrapes.

* These books were kindly provided for review by the publishers via Net Galley, but all opinions are my own.

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